Robert Barnett is Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia and the author most recently of–ÊLhasa: Streets with Memories and co-editor with Ronald Schwartz of Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field on Cultural and Social Change. (May 2008)
China’s Vice-President Xi Xinping’s speech in Lhasa marking ‘the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Tibet’ was broadcast live on Chinese state television, an exceptional event and an indication of its national importance. Watching Xi deliver it gives a much more complex impression both of him and of China: the visual information largely conveys the opposite of Xi’s words.
Chinese officials appear to be worried about a little-known seventeenth-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.
Since President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama on February 18, the details of the closely-watched encounter have been carefully parsed, from the history of the room in which the two men met (the White House Map Room, an apparent indicator that a meeting is private, yet not personal) to the absence of the First Lady (making the meeting more official), and the serving of tea (making it less formal). Even the garbage bags that the Dalai Lama passed on his exit (seen as either incompetence by White House staff or a veiled message to Beijing) and the Dalai Lama’s flip-flops (seen as a metaphor for his policies or a rebuttal to Rupert Murdoch’s claim that the Tibetan leader wears Gucci shoes) were debated.